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Education

Iowa State requiring intervention as admission condition for low-scoring students

'The best way to keep a student out of an academic hole is to prevent them from digging the hole'

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa State University, for the first time this fall, is making every new student who didn’t qualify for automatic admission participate in an intervention program aimed at improving his or her odds at academic success and graduation.

Where Iowa State previously made supports available to applicants admitted despite falling below an academic-performance threshold for guaranteeing acceptance, ISU this year made participation in its new “Smart Start” program a condition of enrollment.

“We have tried things in the past that we made available to students on a voluntary basis,” ISU Director of Admissions Operations and Policy Phil Caffrey said. “But those things weren’t as successful as we would like.”

The initiative comes as Iowa’s three public universities strive to sustain their enrollments amid shifting demographics while also upping retention and graduation rates — prime indicators of student success and key metrics in national rankings.

“The whole thing is based on the premise that the best way to keep a student out of an academic hole is to prevent them from digging the hole in the first place,” said Phil Caffrey, director of admissions operations and policy.

As part of its public mission, the Board of Regents updated automatic admission standards in 2006 with its current set of metrics — known as the Regents Admission Index, or RAI. The index promises Iowans can attend University of Iowa, Iowa State or University of Northern Iowa as long as they achieve an RAI score of 245, a calculation based on class rank, ACT score, cumulative grade-point average and number of core high school courses taken.

The board recently updated its formula to nix class rank starting next year — as fewer high schools are using it.

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Although each of the public universities only admit a fraction of their annual applicants with scores below the automatic-entrance threshold of 245, they collectively enrolled 776 freshmen with the lower scores in fall 2018 — or 6.2 percent of the total freshman class, according to regent documents.

That total includes both in-state and out-of-state students — even though only Iowans are guaranteed admission.

Iowa State last fall admitted nearly 700 students with the lower scores, 391 of whom enrolled — including 255 in-state students and 136 out-of-state students. That was the highest among the three universities, with UI enrolling a total of 147 freshmen with sub-245 scores and UNI enrolling 238.

ISU research has found the lower-RAI group is at the greatest risk for attrition, according to Caffrey. That is with the average one-year retention rate for students with RAI scores between 233 and 245 falling 16 percent below the 87-percent average for all students who enrolled straight from high school.

The three-year retention rate is 22 percent lower than the average — at just 56 percent. And the six-year graduation rate for that low-RAI score group is 50 percent, compared to 73 percent for all direct-from-high-school students.

When looking strictly at classroom success, those Iowa State students who didn’t earn automatic admission averaged a first-year GPA of 2.11 — compared with an overall first-year GPA average of 2.87.

“All we are trying to do is help these students,” Caffrey said. “The reason we admitted them is we think these students have a reasonable chance at being successful here, and we just want to ensure they are successful.”

How it works

While all Iowa’s public universities offer resources for first-year students needing extra academic support, Iowa State is the only now mandating the intervention as a condition of enrollment just for students with RAI scores under 245.

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UNI mandates supports and interventions for any students it deems “academically at-risk,” although that’s not inclusive of all students admitted with low RAI scores. And UI has a variety of onboarding and orienting programs for new students aimed at increasing their odds at success.

But only Iowa State’s is exclusively required for those admitted despite low scores — excluding freshmen who already belong to a population that receives structured academic support, such as those in the Multicultural Vision Program, Academic Program for Excellence and recruited student athletes.

The new Smart Start mandate can last one semester or two — depending on how students perform in the classroom, Caffrey said.

The program makes initial contact with participating students within the first three weeks of the fall semester via a small-group meeting with three or four peers, a graduate student hired to run the program, and Katie Whipple, who directs Iowa State’s Academic Success Center.

Those small-group meetings aim to give students a chance to share their concerns and reflect on their transition to college.

“It’s more of a get-to-know-you kind of thing, doing an intake with the student to see what kinds of concerns or challenges they might be facing,” Caffrey said.

In addition, the program requires participating students to attend a one-hour workshop and to meet with the graduate student running the program — “strategically timed around midterms,” according to Iowa State.

Students enrolled in the mandatory program who earn at least a 2.33 GPA in the fall semester won’t have any further obligations, according to Whipple. Caffrey said research shows a significant jump in persistence for students making those marks in their first semester.

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Those falling below the 2.33 GPA benchmark must stay in the Smart Start program for a second semester — when they’ll be required to attend two one-on-one meetings and take a Psychology 131 course, a one-credit academic skills development class.

They also will be eligible for free tutoring. And they’ll be done with the program after their first full year — although they’ll still be subject to Iowa State’s academic warning and probation rules, which require additional measures for students earning under a 2.0 GPA in their first semester.

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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